The Fried Chicken Inflation Index
If you are walking anywhere in London and spot Elijah Quashie, a.k.a. The Chicken Connoisseur, he would be grateful if you resist the urge to make a fuss. Do not shout “Chicken guy!” or ask him to record a happy birthday greeting to a friend on your mobile phone. If you have comments or questions, please keep them to a minimum.
“People drawing attention to me, I don’t like that too much,” he said one recent afternoon, dressed in Nike shorts and a T-shirt and flashing a perfect set of chompers that are one of his visual trademarks. “I’ve come to see that anonymity is a privilege, and it’s a privilege that I’ve lost.”
This has been true since 2016, when Mr. Quashie’s YouTube show, “The Pengest Munch,” went viral and turned a cherubic-looking lad from North London into a national celebrity with 870,000 subscribers and, briefly, a spinoff series on BBC 4. Armed with little more than a videographer, a microphone and a robust appetite, he began posting reviews of take-away restaurants that sell fried chicken on the cheap to school kids, late night partyers and anyone impervious to instant spikes in calories.
Except the shops are not so cheap these days. A more recent occupational hazard of this reviewing gig, one nearly as annoying as overly enthusiastic fans, is inflation. Since he started his show, prices have roughly doubled, with a huge leap at the start of the pandemic. Mr. Quashie’s go-to combination for every review — fries, four wings, a chicken burger and a soda — used to cost about 2.5 pounds, or roughly $3. That same meal is now £5 or £6 and occasionally more.
“The prices are mad,” he said a few months back, winding up his review of the Chicken Cottage shop in Ladbroke Grove in West London. “Four wings and chips, £4. Reckless. But these are the times we’re living in.”
Although the shops generated $2.3 billion in revenue last year, according to Mintel, a market intelligence agency, professional critics have long ignored them, and even customer-generated reviews on Google were rare. That changed seven years ago when Mr. Quashie, in a shirt and tie, deployed preternatural swagger, £5 words and local vernacular — the “pengest,” for instance, means the best — to appraise fried wings with the wit and attention to detail usually reserved for prix fixe menus. Making the videos for his YouTube audience is now how he makes his living.
Today, a positive review by Mr. Quashie will drive hordes of newcomers to a shop, delighting the owner and infuriating locals.
Assessing Food Hut Pizza & Chicken in Barbican, he found that a sign at the front had pieces of red tape stuck over the prices, so that you had to enter to find out how much each item cost. (This shaved a few decimal points off his rating system, in which a five is perfect.) Often, he now ends favorable reviews with a plea to “bossman,” which can mean the owner or the person at the cash register, to resist the urge to profiteer.
“Bossman, please, for the locals,” he said, after raving about the wings at Dawley Chicken in Hayes, “keep the prices calm.”
One recent afternoon, he sat for an interview at one of the few tables at Chicken Valley in Tottenham, not far from where he lives, and explained why he has never reviewed the place.
“If I do one here, it’s going to get flooded and the prices are going to go up,” he said, as he sprinkled salt and pepper on his fries. “I need to protect my local from that.”
The son of immigrants from Ghana, Mr. Quashie is funny, self-deprecating and expansive on most topics except his age. (“I prefer not to say.”) This much is clear: He looks far younger than his years, which is an advantage whenever a chicken shop employee asks why a guy is following him with a video camera.
“I say it’s for a school project,” he explained.
Mr. Quashie has never discussed prices with a chicken shop manager. He just knows what he’s seen on menus and hears on the news. On Wednesday, the Office for National Statistics here announced that inflation had risen to a 40-year high of 10.1 percent, a figure derived from a basket of about 700 goods and services at 150 venues across the United Kingdom.
Prices for food were a big part of the jump. But it’s one thing to read grim statistics from the government, including that poultry prices were up more than 16 percent. It’s another to feel pinched every time you tuck into a box of perfectly flaky fried wings. For Mr. Quashie, inflation is both painful and delicious.
Mr. Quashie said that when foot traffic slowed during a series of coronavirus lockdowns, which began in March 2020 and ended a little more than two years later, nearly every store raised prices to make up for shortfalls. It seemed to him that customers with the nerve to keep eating out were getting gouged to compensate for everyone else.
His gut tells him that all this talk about the cost of living is simply a pretext for owners to make more money.
“If there’s a headline or two about recessions and inflation in general, I’m sure the local bossman would take the opportunity to say ‘Yeah, man, inflation, man,’” he said. “I know it was £4 last week. It’s £5.20 now. It’s not down to me. I think there’s a lot of that.”
Mr. Quashie conceived of “The Pengest Munch” after he and some friends were walking around a neighborhood in East London trying to figure out where to eat. An internet search revealed not a single review for a chicken shop they neared. There were hundreds of reviews of high-end Italian joints and for every other cuisine.
“Then I was watching ‘Master Chef’ on TV and I realized that a lot of people watch that show, but they’re reviewing the kind of food that most people don’t eat,” he said. His lack of culinary training didn’t give him pause. He’d watched “Catch Me if You Can,” a Steven Spielberg film about a real-life con man who posed as a prosecutor, an airline pilot and a physician, among other guises. The lesson: Credentials are unnecessary if you know how to fake it.
“On off days, I started reading the dictionary and the thesaurus,” he said, “because I realized that if I have a good vocabulary, I can make it seem like I know about stuff that I don’t really know too much about.”
The first few episodes racked up about 600 views, a number that astounded Mr. Quashie, who had no previous experience with the platform. Then, in December 2016, a friend posted episode No. 6 to a Reddit forum with the irresistible title “Kid in suit and trainers goes around London reviewing chicken shops.” A day later, the video had 300,000 views, and a few days after that more than one million.
“Man needs a knighthood for services to the public,” wrote a fan in the comments section.
Viewers started watching older episodes and discovered that the wings at Eden’s Cottage in Finsbury Park had been awarded a perfect score.
“The way man breaded that wing before he fried it, he knows his business,” Mr. Quashie told viewers, with reverence.
Eden’s was soon so busy that the Daily Mail ran a story about an influx of new customers and the backlash they inspired: “Regulars are furious because hipsters have taken over their favorite takeaway after Chicken Connoisseur YouTuber praised it,” the headline read.
Mr. Quashie became the public face of a restaurant category that was so ubiquitous it was all but invisible.
“He showed that this high volume part of London’s food culture should be treated as seriously as any other,” said James Hansen of Eater London, the food website.
Mr. Quashie is occasionally recognized by shop employees and mildly annoyed when he’s then favored with extras, like bonus wings. He prefers anonymity so he has the same experience as any customer.
When QFC in Neasden, in northwest London, got a “Pengest” visit a few weeks ago, Kavethan Pathmakanthan, who was working behind the counter, feigned ignorance.
“Because I’m an introvert,” he said on the phone.
Mr. Pathmakanthan, who is the son of the owner, was braced for a withering review when he watched the episode a few days later. That’s because it opens with a friend of Mr. Quashie’s saying that the food at QFC once gave him a rash. Whether this was a joke or not, Mr. Quashie was undeterred. He awarded the shop a generally favorable review.
“It’s a surprising 3.7,” he said in the video. “There’s work to be done, but as it stands, it’s pretty calm.”
“I was relieved,” said Mr. Pathmakantham, “and then very happy.”
There are 3,727 chicken shops in the United Kingdom, says the Local Data Company, a retail consultancy, and more than half of them are independently run. These shops tend to nod to American roots. Restaurant names include Miami Fried Chicken, Dallas Chicken and a dozen or so variations on KFC.
The proliferation of these shops has worried diet experts and politicians alike. In 2017, Mayor Sadiq Khan of London announced a ban on any fast food restaurant opening within 400 meters of a school.
Mr. Quashie chooses shops based on recommendations from friends with an added, self-imposed dictate to spread himself around geographically. He’s done reviews in all 32 of the city’s boroughs. Watching episodes of “The Pengest Munch” doubles as a sedentary way to see far-flung parts of London.
Every review starts with what he calls a “crep check,” which is a quick display of the sneakers he’s wearing. (His collection now stands at roughly 370 pairs.) Then it’s on to the shop “to see what the food is saying.”
Mr. Quashie’s palette is alive to subtle differences in breading, spices, textures, bun toasting methods and the way condiments have been slathered on. He once detected notes of chocolate in a wing that he liked. He routinely denounces tiny, dry or flavorless offerings as “dead,” his put-down of choice, unless a wing is beyond awful, in which case it’s deemed “nasty.” Compliments start with “calm,” go up to “bless” and “certified” and peak with “piff” and “peng.”
The shops offer surprises, many of them unpleasant. He has found fried feathers on wings and traces of blue paper towel on his fries.
And now, there are those high prices, less a surprise these days than a consistent headache. During the interview at Chicken Valley, he stood at the counter and tallied up his order, the usual combo of wings, fries, soda and a chicken burger.
“Once upon a time, that would have cost £2.50,” he said. “Now it’s £4.69. And I don’t think it’s ever going back.”